'Sky's the limit': A youthful USMNT enters its most exciting era ever with lofty ambitions

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 18: Gio Reyna #7 of the United States lifts the trophy as United States players celebrate winning the Concacaf Nations League tournament during the 2023 CONCACAF Nations League Final at Allegiant Stadium on June 18, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by John Todd/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
Gio Reyna lifts the trophy as USMNT players celebrate winning the CONCACAF Nations League title at Allegiant Stadium on June 18, 2023 in Las Vegas. (Photo by John Todd/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

PARADISE, Nev. — The 2022 World Cup cycle began with a year of purgatory, and then with asterisks. Gregg Berhalter would scribble them as he plotted the U.S. men’s national team’s future. They’d go next to names like Gio Reyna on projected depth charts. Reyna, nowadays, is a USMNT protagonist, a crown jewel within the most exciting generation in program history; but back in 2018, as Berhalter interviewed for the head coaching job, he was 15 years old.

He and others packed potential, but four and five years ago, the USMNT’s future was uncertain and its present bleak. Berhalter would scan the player pool, and craft those initial depth charts, and “it was tough in the beginning, man,” he once told "The Gab & Juls Show." “It was tough to say, ‘OK, how are we gonna get out of this?’”

That, in a nutshell, was the state of the program at this very stage one cycle ago. Nick Lima and Daniel Lovitz were regulars; Tyler Boyd and Gyasi Zardes were borderline starters. Berhalter prepared for his first competitive games, the 2019 Gold Cup, with pitiful losses to Jamaica and Venezuela.

Now, all of that is context, remarkably recent history that places nights like Sunday in perspective. Over 73 hours in Vegas this past week, the USMNT bossed Mexico, then discarded Canada, and careened across champagne-coated floors into its most auspicious era ever.

There have, over the years, been spurts of success and triumphant teams, but there has never been a collection of talent, both raw and refined, like this one. It has blossomed over the past four years and almost entirely phased out MLS mainstays. There were only five non-MLS players on that 2019 Gold Cup roster. Now, the USMNT’s overflowing first-choice 11 — even without captain Tyler Adams — plays in the top-flight leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

And the evolution is ongoing, perhaps even accelerating. It was initially manufactured via U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, which helped produce the likes of Adams, Reyna and others. The DA then essentially morphed into MLS NEXT, which has kept the production line churning. The current crop of early-20-somethings “was a special group of players,” U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker said upon taking his job in April, “but I already see more of those teams coming through the youth systems here.”

The homegrown talent, more plentiful than ever before, has been supplemented by dual-national recruits. And together, they are already winning. The USMNT lifted only two trophies from 2008 through 2020; this group has already lifted three since. Even with an interim coach’s interim in charge, they strode past Mexico and Canada comfortably. They were “very professional,” as Christian Pulisic said, a matter-of-fact statement about their current regional supremacy and their loftier ambitions.

And they are simmering with confidence that they can, and will, reach those lofty places. They look around their locker room, and see a dozen reasons why. Moments after Folarin Balogun emerged from it Sunday night, he was asked whether anything about his first two weeks with the USMNT had surprised him. After a pause to ponder and reflect, the answer came: “The thing that surprised me the most was just the actual talent on this group.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 18: Folarin Balogun #20 takes the trophy after winning the CONCACAF Nations League Championship Final between United States and Canada at Allegiant Stadium on June 18, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
Folarin Balogun takes the trophy after winning the CONCACAF Nations League title on June 18, 2023 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)

He’d already connected with players on a recruiting visit to Orlando in March; so to some extent, after committing to the U.S. over England, he knew what he was walking into. But he was still blown away by the team’s collective youth.

“Sometimes, when I'm asking the boys, and they tell me they're 20, I can't believe it,” Balogun said Sunday. “I think there's so many players who will go on to have top careers.”

Many have already established themselves, and starred at a World Cup. But optimism is endless because Balogun is 21 years old, and Reyna, Yunus Musah and Ricardo Pepi are still only 20. Even Pulisic, Adams and McKennie are still only 24; Tim Weah and Chris Richards are 23; Brenden Aaronson and Sergiño Dest are 22.

“When I took over in 2018, I was coaching kids,” Berhalter said Friday. “To see the development of this group, the individuals and the team, has been amazing.” And it made him think: “OK, what could the next three years look like?”

The thought, more so than ever before, produces giddiness. The USMNT will enter a Copa America on home soil next summer, perhaps as the third-favorite behind Brazil and Argentina. From there, it has a bottomless well of resources to fuel its continued growth. It has a “brotherhood,” a self-maintaining culture that will accentuate talent. And it has the 2026 World Cup to feed outlandish dreams.

Or, at least, they were previously outlandish — just a few short years ago. Now, Balogun arrives, and gets asked about 2026, and voices an increasingly common thought: “It would be silly, I think, to go into a tournament not trying to win it.”

Which is not to say they will, of course. But the current trajectory is irresistibly alluring.

“If we continue to develop in the way that we have,” Berhalter said Friday, and “if this group continues to go where we think they can go, the sky's the limit.”

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